In one of the world's quietest rooms

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2012 - 6:34 PM

Conquering sound and fury is just part of Steve Orfield's nonconformist world.

In the world's quietest room, conversation sounds more like a stage whisper. In fact, the minus-9.4-decibel anechoic chamber "is the one place where what you hear is my actual voice," Steve Orfield said, barely audible from 3 feet away.

Surrounded by double walls of concrete and insulated steel covered by 3.3-foot-thick wedges of fiberglass, the south Minneapolis space is perfectly suited not only for the Guinness World Records book but also a boatload of business applications.

Thanks in part to the anechoic chamber, Orfield Laboratories has helped Harley-Davidson, Cessna, Whirlpool and Black & Decker redefine the sounds of their products. It is also working with restaurants on noise issues (inside and outside), and devising the first nursing home designed entirely for the perceptual abilities of a 90-year-old.

All of which makes it hardly surprising to hear how Orfield feels about noise. "I think noise is pollution," he said. "You have no right to do that to others any more than smokers do. I think the noise that you make is the only noise you should hear."

That hasn't stopped him from also creating one of the Twin Cities' loudest rooms, a reverberation chamber with bowed aluminum panels in which he sounds the same from 300 feet away as 3 feet away. It's one of several chambers in which the lab's tests take place.

"The reverb room is perfectly diffuse," he said, "and the quiet room perfectly absorbent."

And perfectly disorienting, if a visitor is not careful. Besides being able to hear one's own heart, stomach and even inner ear, or the sounds emitted by a cellphone's display, first-timers in the quiet room find their other senses discombobulated by "cross-modal" perceptual effects.

"Your eyes don't feel as comfortable in this room," Orfield correctly pointed out, adding that some visitors have had hallucinations during or after a spell in there. "You lose your touchstones."

Small wonder, then, that even Orfield spends no more than a half-hour at a time in the 99.99 percent soundproof anechoic chamber, and no one has lasted in there for more than 45 minutes.

'Extroverted introvert'

Orfield, 63, entered the sound-research field fairly early, but not until after he figured out what he didn't want to do: work for anyone other than himself.

At the University of Minnesota, he completed the requirements for a philosophy major and a psychology minor but never got a degree because he refused to take "goofball courses like freshman English." That was the 1960s, and "rebellion was in the air," he said without a trace of regret.

Upon non-graduation, he worked at an office furniture company "and figured out I was unemployable. My boss was a nice guy, but I couldn't stand to work for him."

In January 1971 he founded Orfield Laboratories in his basement, with a focus on high-end office furniture and equipment that provided optimum acoustics. He built the company slowly and added product research to the mix in 1980.

Now Orfield's design, research and testing work is equally divided between architecture and corporate products. His client list has included Medtronic, Ford, the city of Richfield (for airport noise), Kohler and 3M.

With piercing eyes, a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard (salt is winning) and a speech pattern that runs beyond sentences toward paragraphs (and long ones at that), the south Minneapolitan looks and acts the part of a researcher and business owner. His daughter Angela, a psychologist, calls him an "extroverted introvert" and "a high-achieving ADHD."

The result is an often iconoclastic approach to addressing issues and figuring out solutions, plus some strongly held views. On the architectural side of his business, he tends to limit his client list to "the 1 percent of architects who care about science."

He believes strongly in the notion of active and passive clients, even though only the former are paying him. Indeed, his work often is geared for third parties: Stella's Fish Cafe in Uptown installed glass panels on its rooftop lounge once Orfield labs determined that customers' conversations, especially late at night, carried and were a nuisance for neighbors.

And don't get him started -- OK, do -- on a certain popular business practice.

"Most clients use focus groups to predict things," he said, "but if you want to find out how people will respond to a product or an environment, the worst thing you can do is ask them."

He added that academic market researchers and cognitive psychologists have proven the conclusion that "focus groups contradict traditional research [because] feelings and associations are highly correlated to future behavior. Feelings have great predictive value, but opinions don't."

So when Harley-Davidson needed to make quieter motorcycles for the European market in 1998, Orfield Labs determined "the five most important things to look at." It assembled people to listen to recordings of different bikes, then rate them on a 1-7 scale in categories such as "powerful," "high-quality" and "expensive." The aim: to find "the sweet spot" of sound, quiet enough to meet European standards but still evoking power and quality.

A major move

Orfield had formulated his research approach long before he installed the world's quietest room. He didn't even buy the building in which it sits until 1990.

That structure had the whole sonic thing going on, having housed the revered Sound80 studio. Among the recordings produced there: "Funkytown," parts of Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's Grammy-winning "Copeland: Appalachian Spring" and Cat Stevens' last album "before he became an angry Muslim," Orfield said. (Sound80 also was recognized by Guinness, in 2006, as the world's oldest digital recording studio.)

His business was rolling along in the early '90s when Orfield learned that a Sunbeam facility in suburban Chicago had no more use for its anechoic chamber and would sell it to whomever could remove it soonest.

With the help of a University of Chicago friend, Orfield managed to enlist the school's football team to load the chamber's components onto three semis for the move north.

After some time in storage, the chamber was installed and became one of many spaces that the company uses to test products and conduct other sonic research. Getting the room was important because, he said, "the quieter it is, the quieter the things you can measure in it."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

CHECK IT OUT

Tours are available on Fridays at 4 p.m. if enough people express interest; call 612-721-2455. A $20 food-shelf donation is requested.

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